George Willacy began Haafnetting in 1956 when he was a boy of 16 years old.
Brought up in Waterfoot Road it is not surprising that George became interested in fishing as his father and grandfather were both fishermen. In fact he can trace his ancestry back to the 1850s when a small flotilla of fishermen, based in Morecambe, took shelter in Annan harbour from a violent storm. These men comprising the Willacy family, the Woodhouse family and the Baxter family so liked Annan and its rich fishings that they decided to stay. Descendants of those families are still found in the fishing community to this day and are represented in the haaf net fishings and were found in both the poke net fishings, and the stake net fishings.
To his fellow fishermen, friends and neighbours George is simply George, the former boilermaker, haafnet fisherman and poke net fishermen. However George has other feathers to his cap; he has a long history of public service. He is a former Annan councillor, member of the Provost committee, member of the district council, chairman of the fishery board and Justice of the Peace. In 2012, George’s long public service was formally recognised and he was awarded an MBE for his services to the community in Annandale and Eskdale.
George has always fought tooth and nail to preserve Annan’s fishing heritage. At one point consideration was given to selling the haaf net fishery. George and others vigorously opposed this and successfully argued that our fishings were too precious to end up in private hands. George was also involved in an action in the High court in Edinburgh. A private angling beat on the Annan river asserted that Haaf nets were “fixed engines” and thus illegal.
During the court hearing he, and fellow haaf and poke netsman George Chalmers, attended the hearings each day. At one point George had to intervene in the proceedings. A QC stated that the river Annan turns east into the Solway Firth and that haafnetters were intercepting these fish. George had to point out that, in fact, the river runs west. If it ran east it would be the only river ever to climb a huge gradient! Eventually the court decided that haaf nets were not ‘fixed engines’ and haafnetting could continue.
The court case attracted huge publicity and a film crew came to Annan to photograph both George Willacy and George Chalmers as they walked across the sands with their haaf beams accompanied by George Chalmer’s dog. The court action also attracted considerable attention from the legal profession itself and, apparently there was a wager among judges as to the breed of George Chalmer’s dog (Whisky). For the record, only one judge had correctly identified Whisky as a border terrier and duly won the wager.
George has noticed many changes in the years since he started fishing. There is much more erosion of the Solway’s bankings now and the whole estuary is sanding up. Different species of fish are now spotted: porpoises and sea bass in particular. George has also caught a most unusual fish: a cross between an Atlantic salmon and a Sockeye salmon.
George has landed many salmon; his biggest weighing thirty-four pounds, but the fifty-pound salmon his father landed holds the family record! Many moons ago George thought he might have beaten the family record when he spotted a huge commotion in one of his poke nets. Unfortunately it turned out to be not a salmon at all but a gypsy horse racing buggy! The mystery as to how and why it ended up in George’s nets has never been solved.
George’s father (Yattan) tragically suffered a heart attack whilst fishing his poke nets. His body was swept away by the strong currents of the Solway. He was eventually recovered nineteen days later. George’s grandfather also died whilst fishing. He died whilst fishing at Maryport. When George’s father and uncle reported the death, they were faced with a week’s delay before they could claim his body. However they decided this was bureaucracy gone mad, duly placed their loved one in a wheelbarrow, pushed him to the quayside, placed him in their boat and sailed home!
George is immensely proud of his fishing ancestry. One of his ancestors fronted a successful campaign to allow shrimp net fishing in the Solway; another was the first fisherman in the region to fish for scallops. His grandfather enjoyed entering regattas and was never beaten in any competition. George has obviously inherited his ancestors’ boat building skills having built a perfect miniature replica of his grandfather’s boat “Anita” which sits proudly in his living room.
George shares his love of fishing with his brother John, although John (Cloggy) always had divided loyalties between fishing and pigeon racing. The brothers could often be found fishing the poke nets together. Very sadly, since poke netting (and stake netting) were banned, George and Cloggy were the last two fishermen ever to fish with poke nets. It was a fishing method unique to the Solway, a way of life, and, unless salmon stocks dramatically improve, will never be practised again.
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